Tree-based survival analysis improves mortality prediction in cardiac surgery

Jahan C. Penny-Dimri, Christoph Bergmeir, Christopher M. Reid, Jenni Williams-Spence, Luke A. Perry, Julian A. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


Objectives: Machine learning (ML) classification tools are known to accurately predict many cardiac surgical outcomes. A novel approach, ML-based survival analysis, remains unstudied for predicting mortality after cardiac surgery. We aimed to benchmark performance, as measured by the concordance index (C-index), of tree-based survival models against Cox proportional hazards (CPH) modeling and explore risk factors using the best-performing model. Methods: 144,536 patients with 147,301 surgery events from the Australian and New Zealand Society of Cardiac and Thoracic Surgeons (ANZSCTS) national database were used to train and validate models. Univariate analysis was performed using Student's T-test for continuous variables, Chi-squared test for categorical variables, and stratified Kaplan-Meier estimation of the survival function. Three ML models were tested, a decision tree (DT), random forest (RF), and gradient boosting machine (GBM). Hyperparameter tuning was performed using a Bayesian search strategy. Performance was assessed using 2-fold cross-validation repeated 5 times. Results: The highest performing model was the GBM with a C-index of 0.803 (0.002), followed by RF with 0.791 (0.003), DT with 0.729 (0.014), and finally CPH with 0.596 (0.042). The 5 most predictive features were age, type of procedure, length of hospital stay, drain output in the first 4 h (ml), and inotrope use greater than 4 h postoperatively. Conclusion: Tree-based learning for survival analysis is a non-parametric and performant alternative to CPH modeling. GBMs offer interpretable modeling of non-linear relationships, promising to expose the most relevant risk factors and uncover new questions to guide future research.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1211600
Number of pages8
JournalFrontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • cardiac surgery
  • machine learning
  • mortality
  • survival analaysis
  • tree-based machine learning

Cite this